In Context: Writing and Diversity

Danza (3)

What will you be making when you make it?

 I was just in Mexico City. On my “must see” list were Diego Rivera’s murals – as many as I could see in three days’ time. In hindsight, I know that was a foolish expectation – the part about seeing as many as possible. Partly because of how active and prolific he was, but mostly because of how immense and profound a single work is. You do not view his work, you are a witness to it. Rivera builds the scenes with vivid layers of color, symbol, and perspective so that the longer you stand there the more dynamic the scene becomes. It grows around you, encircling you, as you make out detail and meaning and story within story.

The one panel I found myself coming back to in the Secretaria de educación was titled, La Danza del Venado a depiction of an indigenous Yaqui ritual dance and mythological tale. This was unlike the other murals which were full of color and overflowing with the things of humanity and creation, with political precision and clarity. This section was done in grey tones only, with soft lines and stippling throughout, making the entire scene look like it was shrouded with a light mist. There were only three images in the entire space: two dancers and an infinity symbol floating over the space in between them. Their arms outstretched, bent at the elbows, their legs bent – one pushing his weight backwards, the other coming forward. I never heard of this dance, or this story, yet I felt familiar with it. Though it was completely devoid of scenery and details, I knew they were somewhere in nature, I knew that they were in an endless dance, and I knew that though they weren’t enemies, one had to lose for the other to survive. What was Rivera able to do to bring such detail, clarity and specificity to my mind? Standing there, I started to question myself deeply.

This last year, I’ve been figuring out how to move my writing out into the commercial world, so that agents, producers, directors (or anybody) may become familiar with my point of view. I’ve been researching places where my talents and passions could be best used; trolling LinkedIn to find any distant connection somewhere, randomly tweeting to the CEO of Univision to pitch him my ideas – he did tweet back! As I’m thinking about how to navigate the for-profit world, part of my thinking inevitably turns to questioning what my sell-out boundaries are. Because in my darker moments I assume that really making it means having to leave my unique perspective behind. After all, we do have a million different versions of that story: immigrant girl makes it in a new place by (sub)merging her desires into those of the dominant culture. Could I go with that? At least I know it has a happy ending.

So I look down at my feet. My sandals are touching ground where Diego Rivera once stood, or sat, or walked by. I’m pulled into a world which, when he was creating it, was all but banned subject matter. Poor people’s lives, indigenous lives, didn’t matter. He made space, literally, by painting giant public murals that projected the sound and color, history and memory of poor and working class people in Mexico. And he showed not only what he knew to be true, and beautiful, but what he knew had power to change the world.

But my shoes, I need a new pair. Did Rivera have a thought about sell-out boundaries? Did he have to think about working two and three jobs? Did he have to navigate the double-speak of today’s social, economic and political divestment from human well-being? Maybe not. I learned that he did make money by painting portraits for rich patrons and by accepting commissions from wealthy men and women. Artists who are activists have to know that the system they are trying to dismantle isn’t going to praise or pay them for that work. So we have to keep all channels clear and navigate the open waters. What do I want to make so that I can make change?

Creating truly diverse content comes from stories that are connected to context – a world of not only personal relationships but political and historical relationships as well. I know that my context helps me create characters with unique perspectives. Whether those stories will take root in the commercial arena or in my community work, my experience tells me that there are spaces where I can use story to subvert expectations, challenge boundaries, and activate minds. Creative potential abounds. I don’t have to think about making it as an end product. I can, and I must, make it wherever I am.

  • What must you make in order to keep your spirit alive?
  • What are you willing and able to make in order to keep your lifestyle?
  • Are there ways to weave the two together?
  • What would you have to change?
  • How long would that take?


Kayhan Irani is an Emmy award winning writer, a performer and a Theater of the Oppressed trainer. She directs participatory arts projects with government agencies, community based organizations, international NGOs and with the general public. She has led theater for change projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as throughout the U.S. She lives in Queens, NY.